Julio Escobar stepped to the curb glancing around the neighborhood as he struggled to light a candle in the icy breeze. Just days before, the bound-and-gagged body of murder victim Stephen Reid had been discovered in the same spot -- at the edge of San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley. With the candle lit, Escobar clasped hands with Father Daniel Nascimento as they began to pray.
“We’re here to pray for this place,” Escobar said raising his hands, “so there’s no more killings.”
For 18 years, Escobar and the Catholic group, Restorative Justice, have visited killing sites like the one where Reid was found. They pray for the victims, the neighborhood and the victims’ families.
“It’s important also for the community to know that the community’s not abandoned it,” Escobar said. “That there’s people that care.”
On this particular Thursday morning, the group had four stops on the itinerary -- two in the Sunnydale Housing Projects where two recent murders occurred, and a murder scene in the Western Addition neighborhood.
The group lit a candle and placed it near a tree on the 100 block of Blythdale in the Sunnydale projects, where 36-year-old Angelo Rodriguez was shot to death in November. The men began to pray and sing songs, working Rodriguez’s name into the lyrics.
“We’re trying to say that each life is important,” said Nascimento, pastor of St. Brendan the Navigator Church in San Francisco. “We want to remember that person, no matter what happened to them -- no matter what they have done.”
A neighbor watched the men praying -- later pointing-out a bullet hole in his own door. He said bullets, shooting and death are all too familiar in the neighborhood.
“To actually get up out of your door, and see somebody laying on the floor, within feet of your home, and watch him lose his last gasp of air -- that’s rough,” he said.
Escobar said the murder scene visits are only the first step in the group’s work. From there, they seek out the victims’ family members, offering prayers or maybe just an ear. Escobar said he was first introduced to the cycle of violence as a child.
“I come from an area in El Salvador where there was a civil war,” Escobar said. “It just reminds me that now we’re dealing with the same thing.”
Part of the group’s ministry also involves visits to young people in juvenile hall, hoping to cut off the violence before it results in another candle on another sidewalk.
“The motto is one child at a time,” Nascimento said. “We’re trying to reach each soul and hopefully make a difference and change their lives.”
That ministry didn’t come in time for 24-year-old Byron Beasley. The group laid a candle in Western Addition to mark the spot where he was gunned down in early December. The men said prayers over the site. Nascimento sprinkled holy water over the grimy sidewalk. With that, the group loaded into their cars and drove away. It was time to focus on the living.